Yale’s Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry in White People’s Languages

“Since the 18th century, poetry has been a cornerstone of the Yale curriculum.” It makes sense that Yale News–writing from the US, in English, for a university whose English dept. has contributed and constituted much of its fame–to highlight poetry in English when discussing poetry’s stony corner at Yale and the inauguration of the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry Fund. Hence:

The university has been home to many distinguished figures in its teaching and study—among them William Lyon Phelps, known for his charismatic recitations of Tennyson, poet and New Criticism co-founder Robert Penn Warren, and Marie Borroff, a renowned poet, translator, and pioneer in the art of computer poetry.

But we live in non-parochial, multinational times, so it also makes sense to highlight that poetry has not only been written in English, and that the endowed professorship can be available to poets and scholars teaching in other languages:

The Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry Fund will support a recognized living poet or a scholar who teaches poetry or dramatic poetry of any era. Those appointed may teach poetry in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, ancient Greek, or Latin.

But notice anything? Just like Robert Penn Warren, or for that matter Harold Bloom, or Paul de Man, or anyone else important to the history of scholarship in poetry in Western languages, Yale has also been home to George Kennedy, Hans Frankel, Hugh Stimson, and Kang-i Sun Chang 孫康宜, not to mention several others in the interim who have broadened and deepened the teaching and research of Chinese poetry–and in the case of Cheng Chou-yu 鄭愁予, writing it. But their like will not be included by the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry Fund.

“This professorship is very broad — it can cover the work of Chaucer, Dante, Catullus, and Aeschylus, all the way to Akhmatova, Rilke, Lorca, and Beckett,” Iseman said. “Yale has a surpassing commitment to the humanities, and I want to help that any way I can.”

So broad, this professorship, that it will not cover the Shijing 詩經, Du Fu 杜甫, Li Shangyin 李商隱, or Xi Chuan. Or any poets unfortunate enough to write in Arabic, Sanskrit, Javanese, Japanese,or any other language not spoken primarily by Europeans.

Not Altogether an Illusion: Lucas Klein on Burton Watson

Illustration from Feng Yunpeng's Jinshi suoAs part of a Translation & World Literature feature, World Literature Today has published my short article “Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson.” Here’s an excerpt:

Since Chinese poetry started being translated into English, poets and sinologists have presented poetry and sinology as if they were locked in eternal conflict. In 1921 Amy Lowell said, “Chinese is so difficult that it is a life-work in itself; so is the study of poetry. A Sinologue has no time to learn how to write poetry; a poet has no time to learn how to read Chinese”; in 1958 George Kennedy said of Ezra Pound, “Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation”; drawing a distinction between the “poet-translator” and “critic-translator,” James J. Y. Liu wrote in 1982 that while the latter’s “primary aim is to show what the original poem is like, as a part of his interpretation,” the former “is a poet or poet manqué whose native Muse is temporarily or permanently absent and who uses translation as a way to recharge his own creative battery [and] write a good poem in English based on his understanding or misunderstanding of a Chinese poem, however he may have arrived at this”; and in 2004, against those who “believe that translations should consist of word-for-word cribs in which syntax, grammar, and form are all maintained, and in which the translator is merely a facilitator who allows the original poem to speak for itself in a new language,” Tony Barnstone posited that the “literary translator is like the musician who catalyzes the otherwise inert score that embodies Mozart’s genius. . . . Fidelity, true fidelity, comes from a musician’s deeper understanding of the music.” The genius of Watson’s translations is that they reconcile the rift between poetry and scholarship.

Click the image above for the full article.